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Home > Smart Living> Environment > These floating robots will study oceans across the planet

These floating robots will study oceans across the planet

From north Pacific to the Indian Ocean, scientists say the data collected will lead to better oceanic modelling

A robotic near-shore ocean float sits on a cart next to a test tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, US on March 9, 2021.
A robotic near-shore ocean float sits on a cart next to a test tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, US on March 9, 2021. (Reuters)

Moss Landing, California: After years studying the icy waters of the Southern Ocean with floating robotic monitors, a consortium of oceanographers and other researchers is deploying them across the planet, from the north Pacific to the Indian Ocean.

The project known as the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array, or GO-BGC, started in March with the launch of the first of 500 new floating robotic monitors containing computers, hydraulics, batteries and an array of sensors scientists say will relay a more comprehensive picture of the ocean and its health.

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"The ocean is extremely important to the climate, to the sustainability of the earth, its supply of food, protein to enormous numbers of people. We don't monitor it very well," said Ken Johnson, GO-BGC's project director and a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, California.

Johnson said the sensors help survey a larger portion of the ocean more consistently than people collecting samples on ships, adding, "The goal is to be able to monitor the health of the ocean in places where people only go once a decade."

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The top of a robotic near-shore ocean float is seen floating in a test tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, US, on March 9, 2021.
The top of a robotic near-shore ocean float is seen floating in a test tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, US, on March 9, 2021. (Reuters)

At the MBARI lab, team members have been busy calibrating each of the sensors, which will measure acidity, or pH levels, salinity, temperature, pressure, oxygen and nitrate.

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The measurements will be taken at a depth of 3,280 feet (1,000m), where the float will drift in weaker currents for a little over a week. The float will then descend to 6,500 feet before surfacing and transmitting its data to shore via satellite. The entire trip will take about 10 days.

That data will be made available to research institutions and schools for free, and will help lead to better oceanic modelling, said George Matsumoto, a senior education and research specialist at MBARI.

"Over the years as all the data starts to accumulate, we're learning more and more about the oceans," he said.

Ken Johnson, project director of the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array, stands next to a robotic ocean float in a laboratory at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, U.S. on March 9, 2021.
Ken Johnson, project director of the Global Ocean Biogeochemistry Array, stands next to a robotic ocean float in a laboratory at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, U.S. on March 9, 2021. (Reuters)

According to an official release from MBARI, a single robotic float costs the same as two days at sea on a research ship. But floats can collect data autonomously for over five years, in all seasons, including during winter storms, when shipboard work is limited.

While scientists can use earth-orbiting platforms and research vessels to monitor the ocean, satellites can only monitor near-surface waters, and the small global fleet of open-ocean research ships can only remain at sea for relatively short periods of time. As a result, ocean-health observations only cover a tiny fraction of the ocean at any given time, leaving huge ocean regions unvisited for decades or longer, the release explains.

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In October last year, the GO-BGC project also received a $53-million grant from the National Science Foundation, an independent agency of the US government, which supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering.

(Reporting by Nathan Frandino; Editing by Karishma Singh and Gerry Doyle for Reuters)

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